Barbara Harrisson is an art historian, archaeologist, and naturalist renowned for her work on primate conservation and the prehistory of Borneo. Born into a German family in Silesia, Poland, her early academic studies were interrupted by the events of World War II. From 1953 to 1972, she conducted research in Borneo, mostly in collaboration with her husband, Tom Harrisson, curator of the Sarawak Museum. During this period, she was actively involved in primate conservation, especially with the rehabilitation of captive and orphaned orangutans and their reintroduction into the wild. The results of this work were published in her popular book Orangutan (1962) and in Conservation of Nonhuman Primates in 1970 (1971). For her contributions to primate conservation she was awarded an honorary DSc from Tulane University in 1973.
Harrisson is best known, perhaps, for her investigations into the prehistory of Borneo, particularly her research with Tom Harrisson at Niah Cave in Sarawak. Excavations at Niah from 1954 to 1967 yielded extensive archaeological remains and a series of human burials dating back to the late Pleistocene. It still represents the most complete archaeological record documenting the prehistory of the region. Harrisson excavated and described the human burials from Niah and published research on the imported ceramics. The oldest human material from Niah, the so-called Deep Skull, was recovered from “Hell” trench in 1958, associated with Paleolithic stone tools and charcoal dated by carbon 14 to older than 40,000 years before present. Although some doubts have been raised about the validity of the dating, it is likely that the find does represent the oldest modern human from Southeast Asia. The cranium belonged to that of a young adult female, closely resembling those of native people today from Australia and Melanesia.
Harrisson’s most recent research has focused on Asian trade ceramics, which led to the publication of Later Ceramics in South-East Asia: Sixteenth to Twentieth Centuries (1995) and Pusaka: Heirloom Jars of Borneo (1999). In 1977 she was appointed director of the National Ceramic Museum in The Netherlands, the Princessehof in Leeuwarden, in which capacity she served until her retirement in 1987.
- Harrisson, B. (1986). Pusaka: Heirloom jars of Borneo. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Harrisson, B. (1987). Orangutan. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Harrisson, B. (1995). Later ceramics in South-East Asia: Sixteenth to twentieth centuries. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Heimann, J. M. (1999). The most offending soul alive: Tom Harrisson and his remarkable life. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.